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The transformative power of technological advances is two-sided. On the one hand, affirmative use of technology has the potential to greatly enhance consumer benefits. At the same time, unintended consequences may hinder the effective application of labour protection in the future. In response, seizing the opportunities technological advances offer while making fashion a force for good demands great leadership with a people-centred approach. 

Dan Rees is Director of Better Work, a flagship programme of the UN’s International Labour Organization (ILO) jointly managed by the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group. He shares his perspective on how brands can promote decent work by adopting a people-centred approach to technology.

Talk about the Fourth Industrial Revolution can quickly become abstract. Discussion travels at lightning speed into a world of augmented reality and robots, blockchain and biotechnology. At the ILO – which marks 100 years of promoting decent work this year – our focus is fundamentally the same as in 1919: it’s about people, it’s about social justice. If the Fourth Industrial Revolution is to deliver for anyone, it should be those people who make the clothes we wear who still do not enjoy fundamental rights at work.

Experience from the Better Work programme tells us the fashion industry can be a force for good. We have shown how improved working conditions benefit workers and their families and drive higher profitability for manufacturers. Can new technologies speed these outcomes?

So far, there’s not much evidence of this. Most technical innovation in the sector aims to enhance consumer benefits – more convenience, more choice and ever faster delivery times. These innovations can have unintended consequences for workers and manufacturers. They stress production cycles, creating a chain reaction of excessive overtime, increased workplace harassment and work accidents.

©Marcel Crozet, Better Work, ILO/IFC.

It doesn’t have to be this way. In the ILO’s latest report on the Future of Work, experts advocate for a human-in-command approach to technology, to enhance work rather than be controlled by it – a far cry from a determinist rhetoric about robots taking over. Start thinking of robotics, big data systems or the Internet of Things as tools for improving conditions or work, and the potential becomes enormous. We have already seen, for example, how automating certain production processes, like denim distressing, can make work safer. Heat and light sensors can help monitor and improve workplace conditions, even at a distance. Mobile apps can expand workers’ awareness of their rights, and digitising salaries can improve their payment on time. Up-skilling workers can boost their incomes and productivity, especially when women are trained to take positions of leadership.

The latest ILO research, coupled with our own on-the-ground experience, suggests that while certain segments of the industry are adapting quickly to new technologies, the most labour-intensive parts of manufacturing – such as cut, make and trim – are not. This suggests a huge opportunity. In the decade ahead the garment industry will create millions of jobs in places where people badly need them. Most of these people will be young women, many will be migrants and almost all will be among the bottom 40% of the world’s poor. If those jobs are safe and secure, they can be transformative. The fashion industry can lift millions of people out of poverty by providing decent work, empowering women and driving inclusive economic growth.

To seize this opportunity, great leadership is required. It’s time for big conversations. What is the future of work that we want to see in the fashion industry? Let us determine this through a people-centred approach. And then design the technical solutions that fit our common purpose.

Global Fashion Agenda has reached out to industry leaders to get their perspective on the priorities in the CEO Agenda and how to get closer to solutions. The think pieces are a reflection of their personal or organisation’s approach to the issues and do not necessarily state or reflect the opinions and views of Global Fashion Agenda and its Strategic Partners.